One of the main reasons for our New Year, New Birds trip was to do a January 1st Big Day in Delaware with Tim Schreckengost from Thermal Birding. Tim lives and works down in Delaware right now, and has been a friends of ours for a few years now. The following story was co-written by Alex and Tim and is about our attempt at breaking the previous January Delaware Big Day record of 100 species. Our Big Day team consisted of Alex Lamoreaux, Tim Schreckengost, Josh Lefever, and Mark Mizak.
The four of us had tirelessly gone through eBird sightings and the Delaware listserve for over a week prior to New Year’s Eve and felt like we were fairly well prepared to conduct a Big Day in a state we only visit once or twice per year, plus we had Tim’s local knowledge to help us out. On New Year’s Eve we met up at Tim’s house in Newark and got an hour or two of sleep before setting off on the Big Day.
We started the morning off in White Clay Creek State Park around 1:30am listening for owls. There have been spotty reports of Northern Saw-whet Owls in the area, so we tried our luck. Apparently, luck was not in our favor as we did not hear any owls but instead, a handful of Canada Geese making a ruckus in the distance. Being New Year’s Eve, there was a ton of traffic on the roads so that didn’t help our owling efforts either.
From there we worked our way south to Bombay Hook NWR. A few weeks ago, many Great Horned, a few Eastern Screech, several Barn, and a couple Barred Owls were reported during the Christmas Bird Count. We arrived at the Visitor’s Center at 3:10am and started listening for owls. The somewhat strong wind was not helping, which made owling extremely difficult. In addition, the many thousands of Snow Geese calling from nearby at Raymond Pool didn’t help either. We worked our way throughout the western portion of the refuge listening for owls and eventually picked up Great Horned, Eastern Screech, and a single Barn Owl. We tried for Long-eared Owl, but came up empty handed in several locations. In the darkness we also picked up Great Blue Heron, Mallard, and Dunlin by call as well as a few quick looks at snipe flushing off the side of the road.
At five in the morning, we decided to head south for Port Mahon Road, to try for the previously reported Short-eared Owls. After getting gas and taking a short nap, we were ready to rock. At 6:50am, Tim stepped out of the car and noticed that it was rather birdy. He alerted the other three of us, who were still sleeping, and everyone managed to get out of the car just in time to hear a Short-eared Owl call as it flew over! A few minutes passed and we spotted one flying in the distant over the Phragmites. Along Port Mahon Rd., we added several new species to our Big Day list including American Black Duck, Clapper Rail (which was a lifer for Mark!), Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, Mourning Dove, European Starling, Song and Swamp Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbird (eBird Checklist).
We had to beat feet back to Bombay Hook, so we didn’t spend much time at Port Mahon Rd. On the way, Alex spotted a Merlin (eBird Checklist), one of two for the day, sitting on a telephone pole in addition to Common Grackle and Hooded Merganser along the way (eBird Checklist). Back at Bombay Hook, the birding was on. We traveled through the refuge trying to spot any new species we could find and spending as little time as possible at each location. We made our way around Raymond Pool, then to Shearness Pool, Bear Swamp, then back to Raymond, the Boardwalk Trail, and finally the Visitor’s Center (eBird Checklist). We spent almost three hours at Bombay Hook tallying 58 species with Ross’s Goose, Red-shouldered Hawk, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitcher, Marsh Wren as highlights. A single Ruby-crowned Kinglet was seen by Josh and Alex, but did not count towards our Big Day total because Mark and Tim failed to see it before it took off.
We were a little behind schedule when we left Bombay Hook and our total for the day at that point wasn’t near what we thought it should have been, but we continued our journey south towards Prime Hook NWR. Along the way, we quickly scanned flocks of Snow Geese feeding in fields and stopped by Tildon Gravel Pit (eBird Checklist) only to find nothing noteworthy.
Fowler Beach Road was our first stop inside Prime Hook NWR, but before we got there we spotted our only American Kestrel of the day perched on telephone wires (eBird Checklist)! We spent almost 40 minutes scanning the flats and Delaware Bay from Fowler Beach Road and our time spent was relatively productive, finding quite a few new species for the Big Day (eBird Checklist). Highlights here included Black-bellied Plover, American Oystercatcher, and a pair of Hudsonian/Black-tailed Godwits. Alex spotted the godwits foraging near each other, way out across the marsh and sadly, they were just too far to identify positively. We were doing a Big Day, and although the godwits were a big deal, we had to keep moving and the birds didn’t seem to be coming any closer. We were unable to locate the previously reported Nelson’s Sparrows, which would have made a nice addition to our Big Day and year lists.
From Fowler Beach Road, we kept moving south to Prime Hook Beach Road, where we successfully found one of the continuing drake Eurasian Wigeons among many American Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, and Ruddy Duck (eBird Checklist).
Next on the list was Cape Henlopen State Park which is just south of Lewes, Delaware. Cape Henlopen has been a hotspot for Red and White-winged Crossbills recently, but we couldn’t catch a glimpse of either species despite a few minutes walking around areas they have been seen recently. We tried the campground, Herring Point, and the Nature Center. We did have an epic flyover Common Goldeneye at the Nature Center (a duck species we doubted we would run in to that day), a good number of Brown-headed Nuthatches at the campground, and an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull at Herring Point (eBird Checklist)! The stop here was definitely worth it as it was the only spot where we observed the aforementioned species.
Driving from Cape Henlopen to Silver Lake we picked up our only Black Vultures of the Day, a flyover Merlin (our second of the day), House Sparrow, and Brown-headed Cowbird (eBird Checklist)! Once at Silver Lake, we quickly added Canvasback and Redhead to our Big Day total, but missed Greater Scaup which was seen by others on the same day and every day since (eBird Checklist). Silver Lake holds hundreds of wintering Canvasbacks each season and is the most reliable location to see the species in the state of Delaware.
At this point we were hovering around 90 species, ten under the previous record and eleven from breaking the record. We were racing time as we still had to drive south to Indian River Inlet and to various other spots to pick up species that were missing from our day’s listl. We observed 30 species (eBird Checklist) at Indian River Inlet including Brant, Surf and Black Scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, Bonaparte’s Gull, Forster’s Tern, and two flyover Tree Swallows. Fantastic additions to our Big Day total, but not enough to tie or break the record. We dipped on the immature Black-headed Gull that was found earlier that day by another crew making a run at the Big Day record and also the Snow Buntings that have been consistent at the campground.
We were in dire need of additional species if we were going to tie or break the Big Day record for January. Luckily, Tim conducted the Rehoboth Christmas Bird Count the prior Saturday so he knew of some places nearby where we could pick up much needed species. From the Indian River Inlet, we drove north and then southwest towards an unfinished golf course where we found Field and White-crowned Sparrows after 18 minutes of searching (eBird Checklist). Awesome – we were close to the record at this point and we still had a short time before the sun went down.
Back in the car, we headed into Long Neck to search for new species. Driving throughout the various marinas bordering Rehoboth Bay we managed to spot two new species: Lesser Scaup and Horned Grebe (eBird Checklist)! Lesser Scaup tied the January Big Day record at 100 species and Horned Grebe pushed us over to 101 species for the day! We had broken the previous January record, but had no idea what the other Big Day team was up to at that point. Trying to figure out what we could see with the half hour of daylight left, we tried for an Eastern Towhee in King’s Creek Circle. As soon as we stepped out of the car, at least three Eastern Towhees were calling from the wooden bridge giving us our 102nd species for the Big Day (eBird Checklist).
Daylight was fading fast, very fast. We had one more potential target for the day, a Brown Thrasher along Blackpool Rd (eBird Checklist). It was almost dark when we arrived and we immediately started searching for the previously reported thrasher. The bird was a no show, but we did enjoy a chorus of calling White-throated Sparrows and Carolina Chickadees along with a hooting Great Horned Owl. Not a bad way to end a busy, and birdy day.
At the end of the day, we finished with 102 species as a team (we had 105 total but not all four of us saw 3 certain species). Sadly for us, we fell short of the other crew running a Big day, who had a total of 107 species. The other Big Day team saw 13 species that we didn’t see, so a total of at least 118 species were found in Delaware on the 1st! Taking a look at the other team’s Big Day route compared to ours, we think that 110 is certainly attainable within one day in January in Delaware, but perfect planning, lots of scouting, and a ton of luck would really help.
Overall, we had a great time birding and enjoying each other’s company and it was a great way to start off the New Year! Big Days can be pretty stressful, but man are they fun!